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Why Iraq Is Changing Its Tune on Withdrawal

In a surprising development, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his national security advisor Mowaffak al-Rubaie made a dramatic shift in their positions in the SOFA negotiations with the US. By referring to the negotiated deal as a “memorandum of understanding” instead of using its official name, they are signalling that are doing more than just taking a tougher stand: they are scrapping all that has been negotiated since February and starting new negotiations for a whole new deal. In other words, Maliki is saying that he wants to negotiate the withdrawal of US forces, not their presence, after the UN mandate expires.

In order to understand why Maliki made this sharp turn from his formerly pragmatic neutral position, we need to examine three issues: the timing of the statements, the place from which they were made, and the parties that made them.

As to their source, it is noteworthy that the statements came from only religious Shiite leaders. Sunnis and Kurds who have been close to the negotiations and often spoke about the progress and obstacles concerning SOFA do not seem to share Maliki’s new demand.

The timing and location somewhat overlap with Maliki’s visit to the UAE, and almost coincides with Rubaie’s visit to Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf.

In my opinion, the only reason that Maliki made his demand from the UAE and not from Baghdad is that he wanted to send a message of reassurance to Tehran: basically to reassure the Iranians that recent reinforcement of ties with Arab states and the planned reopening of their embassies does not necessarily mean that Iraq has become part of a US-Arab alliance against them.

Of course the message was not received by Iranians only. Some Arab leaders may have seen this message as a sign of Maliki’s possible insincerity towards them. At least one of them (King Abdullah II of Jordan) postponed his planned visit to Baghdad — and I doubt “security concerns” are truly behind the decision.

As I predicted in an earlier post, Maliki waited before making adjustments in his position towards the deal. However, the change came more dramatically than expected. Maliki apparently yielded to Shiite pressure from Najaf and made his choice. He made two mistakes here.

First, he forgot that while he feels that he’s got to listen to what Najaf says, America does not. Neither do Sunnis, Kurds or even many among Shiite Iraqis. Second, by making unrealistic and unacceptable demands he put himself in an embarrassing position. He may have thought that America needs the deal so badly that it will be willing to make huge concessions that he can exploit in order to please Tehran and Najaf.

Something must have made Maliki and his security advisor think that they have the upper hand in the negotiations. After all, they declared: “Our stance in the negotiations under way with the American side will be strong… We will not accept any memorandum of understanding that doesn’t have specific dates to withdraw foreign forces from Iraq”

Here, we’re facing a typical case of the manifestations of the dual loyalties of many Iraqi politicians. The government as a whole has made achievements, especially in terms of security improvements. But these achievements have now been turned into a check that is being cashed to serve the sect and its allies.

For a long time, when the government was very weak, Maliki and Rubaie (especially Rubaie) were clearly against the idea of setting timetables, at least in public. What has changed now is that these politicians have gone to the Ayatollah and told him that their domestic foes have been more or less neutralized and that they are ready to use these gains for the benefit of the sect.

What I am saying here is that the statement “we are strong” does not reflect the Iraq-US balance of power in terms of two states negotiating a deal. It reflects the presumed balance of power between Shiite faith (in its regional context) on the one hand and the US, Sunni Arabs and Kurds on the other.

This calculation is obviously flawed. Maintaining the presence of American troops is crucial for the survival of Maliki and the future of Iraq — it is not as crucial for America. If America insists on a position of refusing to include a timetable for withdrawal in the agreement, it will be Maliki who will have to make concessions.

That will be very bad for his image.

People make mistakes, but the mistake here is aggravated by the fact that Iraq’s leader has allowed his misperceptions to drive him into making demands that are not in the best interest of his country.

Frankly, I’m disappointed by Maliki’s unjustified maneuver. Gambling with the future of nation and its people is an insult that will cast a shadow on his record as a leader of Iraq.